Introduction: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Review
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which was published in 1985. It is a dystopian novel which reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984. The story is set is Boston, Massachusetts near Harvard University at some unspecified future time period, but before 2195, known as the Gilead period. Atwood who is an environmentalist inserts her influence in the book, which she should, by referring to the effects of over fishing and using plastic shopping bags.
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What is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood About?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood tells the story by interspersing Offred’s present story with her past, and I was very impatient to learn what happened to her in the past that led up to her present. I tend not to like stories that use flashbacks or similar devices. But Atwood is very masterful in the ways she weaves the story together. I particularly like the way the story ends with historical notes – it is the year 2195, and researchers have found tapes of the Handmaid’s Tale, which is a significant find. And through a presentation at a symposium, we learn some information and are able to fill in some of the gaps.
In the story, there is a revolution, the entire US Congress is wiped out, and a totalitarian regime is now in power. Women lose their rights and freedom that they fought so hard for, and no longer have control over their reproductive rights. Offred loses her job, and the regime freezes her bank account. She and her husband Luke decide to escape and they buy forged passports, but someone reports them. We never know what happens to Luke, more than likely he was killed. In the middle of the story, we learn that their daughter was adopted. Offred – we do not know what her pre-Gilead name was – is forcibly recruited for reproductive purposes.
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Margaret Sanger, Birth Control Advocate, Founder, Planned Parenthood
Wisdom of Life: Susan Brownell Anthony, Women’s Rights Activist and Abolitionist
Emmeline Pankhurst – UK Suffragist, Secured the Right for Married Women to Vote for Local Offices
She lives with the Commander, and his wife Serena Joy, who was once a gospel singer. The housekeepers and cooks are called Marthas, and there are two in this household – Rita and Cora. Rita is very critical of handmaids and thinks that they have a choice. Most of us do have choices in life, but sometimes, the choices are so bad, that you have to opt for the better of two evils. There is also Nick who is called a Guardian, and acts as a chauffeur or someone who runs errands.
Offred and women like her who are recruited for reproductive purposes are allowed to shop each day, but they go in pairs with the intent that they will watch each other. Offred is paired with Ofglen, and after they have been together for months, Ofglen lets Offred know that there is an Underground movement and the code word is May Day. Each day they walk by the Wall, after they have bought food supplies for the day. On the Wall, which is a Wall of Shame and a deterrent, the regime hangs those who have been executed as a way to instill fear and to control people. Offred likes to pass by the wall to see if any of the executed is her husband Luke.
Each month when Offred and other women are ovulating, their Commanders have sex with them with the wives present, and there is nothing romantic or affectionate about the act. The Handmaid is a vessel to bear children. The process is hypocritical. Before the act, the Commander sits down and reads a passage from the Bible which deals with to be fruitful and multiply, but there is nothing holy about not allowing someone to choose who they procreate with. Baby girls are prized because the birthrate is very low. When the woman has her child, the baby is taken away and given to the Commander’s wife to raise.
Offred’s Commander changes the rules and asks to see her outside of the time when she is ovulating, and of course refusing is not an option for her because she is at his mercy. He wants her to play Scrabble with him, then he wants to kiss her, which is not allowed. Although Offred do not love the Commander, or have any affection for him, to her, it is something to do, and time out of her room.
He gives her little things, and one evening he brings her a gown so that they can go to a secret club called Jezebel. The Commander is also using her as a show piece, and while she is there, she sees her friend, Moira, who had escaped from the Center. Moira gives her their private signal to meet in the bathroom, and one mystery in the story is solved, we learn what happened to Moira after she escaped.
Offred is not getting pregnant so Serena Joy suggests that the Handmaid have sex with Nick, who is very virile. In exchange she will get a photo of her daughter, who she was always wondering about, and she also gets a cigarette and a stick of matches. Offred has sex with Nick, but she keeps on going to him at night and becomes very complacent, and doesn’t assist Ofglen in collecting information on the Commander. Serena Joy finds the gown Offred wore to the club with the Commander and she is not happy about it.
Offred thinks about setting the house on fire using the match she received to light the cigarette Serena Joy gave her as a present to sleep with Nick. Offred also contemplates committing suicide like the woman who occupied the room before her, and also like Ofglen who committed the act before the Eyes could take her away in the black vehicle. In the end, she doesn’t do anything, and the black car comes for her – the Eyes take her away.
She learns that it isn’t the Commander or Serena Joy who betrays her, and now she suspects Nick. But Nick whispers in her ear that she shouldn’t be afraid because he organized her escape. She leaves, but the reader doesn’t know why Nick would do that for her. He uses the code word Mayday, but we also learn that he is one of the Eyes.
Final Thoughts: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I found The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood difficult to read because of the way the author writes, and the content of the book. Color is important in this literary work – the black car that comes to take people away when they have committed a “great sin”, the Handmaids wearing red, like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter.
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Choice of words are also powerful – the Underground Femaleroad, Rachel and Leah Re-education Center, the Colonies, the club Jezebel… The book is an important literary work because it makes the reader think, and dystopian works have that effect on you because as you are reading, you are constantly thinking, “What if this really happened?”
UPDATE: First published in March 2014